Gateway National Park at Sandy Hook
This seven-mile peninsula flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Sandy Hook Bay is a popular destination for beachgoers and tourists, attracting approximately more than 2 million visitors every year. And while many may know that this stretch of land has some historical significance, the amount of historical artifacts and landmarks that along the Sandy Hook beachfront may surprise you.Did you know that a famous actor was once stationed at Sandy Hook with the United States Army shortly after the Spanish-American War? Or that one of the keepers of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the oldest-surviving and operating lighthouse in the United States, was appointed by George Washington? Even the United States Coast Guard was derived from a military service once offered at Sandy Hook.
Read on to learn about some of the rich history that this peninsula holds.
Sandy Hook Lighthouse
Originally financed by two lotteries in the 1760s at a cost of about 7,000 British pounds, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was first lit on June 11, 1764. Twelve years later its thick walls effectively served as a small fortress for British troops in the Revolutionary war, who occupied the lighthouse until the evacuation of New York in 1783. During their occupation, General George Washington’s Continental Army attempted to knock down the lighthouse, but to no avail.
Until the lighthouse was transferred to the United States Coast Guard in 1941, there were about 20 keepers who stayed in the living quarters and routinely traversed the 108 steps to the top. One of them, Matthew Ely, who served for 10 years from 1792 – 1802, was appointed by George Washington. Samuel P. Jewell’s 24 years of service from 1885 – 1909 made him the lighthouse’s longest-tenured keeper.
The lighthouse underwent transformations over the years, including being converted from running on kerosene to electricity, being outfitted with a cannon, and undergoing five renovations to the keeper’s quarters. Currently, the lighthouse is powered by a 1,000-watt light bulb, and continues to act as a beacon for ships and planes near Sandy Hook. It was established as a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
Life-Saving Operations & Birth of the Coast Guard
After relying solely on volunteers to staff life-saving stations along the East Coast until 1878, the United States Congress officially created a sanctioned maritime watch and service group, known as the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS). Forty stations eventually took hold in New Jersey, each staffed by paid members.
The Sandy Hook station, close to the northern-most reach of the peninsula, was rated as the best in the state. Spermaceti Cove, along the southern end of Sandy Hook and part of Fort Hancock, was rated as number 2. Initially, each rescue station was equipped with a boat mounted on a wagon and a six-seat lifeboat known then as a life-car.
From 1871 – 1914, the USLSS was recorded as aiding more than 28,000 ships and rescuing or assisting almost 180,000 people. As sea travel began to evolve early in the 20th century, the USLSS’s services became antiquated and needed to be enhanced to keep up with the innovations in maritime engineering. In 1915, it merged with another agency and became what we know today as the United States Coast Guard. The USCG still remains positioned at Sandy Hook and oversees the operations and maintenance of the lighthouse.
The original Spermaceti Cove station was changed into a visitor center, but was damaged by Sandy and remains closed to the public.
Fort Gates and the (Never Finished) Fort at Sandy Hook
Prior to the installation of Fort Hancock, Fort Gates was built as a temporary, supplemental fortification on Sandy Hook. It was primarily composed of wood and consisted of battery cannons that could launch cannonballs up to one mile away.
Fort Gates was used by the United States in the War of 1812 to help ward off incoming British vessels. Following the war, the idea of making the fortifications permanent was discussed, but not implemented until 1859, when the construction of the Fort at Sandy Hook began. The fort was engineered to be a five-sided, pentagon-shaped structure composed of granite.
Although a large wharf was built to accept the supplies necessary to construct the fort, it was never completed, but it was outfitted with manned armaments during the Civil War. During the middle of the Civil War, 34 cannons were in place, and more than 45 followed by the mid-1860s.
However, due to further advancements in wartime weaponry that could easily penetrate the fort’s granite walls, the Fort at Sandy Hook’s construction was halted in 1869, with about 70 percent of it completed. The granite fort was eventually torn down by the Army in the 1900s.
Fort Hancock was established in 1895, when the United States Army renamed the location previously known as the Fortifications at Sandy Hook. Its mission was a simple but crucial one: to protect the New York Harbor from invasion by foreign navies.
Fort Hancock was most-densely occupied during World War II, when it was home to more than 7,000 members of the military. During that time, white and African American soldiers shared the same workplace and housing complex, nearly unprecedented at the time. Members of the Women’s Army Corps were also stationed there. The center of the fort, then called the Main Post, is known as the modern-day Fort Hancock Historic Post.
As the need for advanced military defenses progressed, so did the battery of weapons contained at Fort Hancock. The outpost was outfitted with numerous missiles that could fire at incoming planes, instead of the regular anti-aircraft guns that were previously installed. Some of the old concrete batteries are still in place today.
Fort Hancock was decommissioned just before New Year’s Day of 1975, but its powerful armaments are a reminder of the numerous wars that Sandy Hook has lived through.
Famous Military Occupants
Tom Mix (1880 – 1940): Before he went on to act on the silver screen and star in more than 200 movies, mostly westerns, Mix was a member of the Army from 1898 – 1902. He transferred to Fort Hancock in 1899 and stayed there until he deserted from the military in October of 1902. For unknown reasons he was never punished by the military, and went on to set the Hollywood standard for cowboy actors for generations to come.
Albert Myer (1828-1880) & E.P. Alexander (1835-1910): The origins of the Confederates’ method of long-distance communications at the First Battle of Bull Run (the first major battle of the Civil War) can be traced all the way back to Sandy Hook.
Myer and Alexander used the area to test a novel method of communication known and the Wig-Wag Signal System, where different colored flags were waved to send messages. Eventually, Myer developed a signal corps for the North, while the South went on to use Alexander’s signal corps.
Where Did They Get Their Names?
Fort Hancock: Named for Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock (1824 – 1886). During his four-decade tenure in the Army, Hancock served as a General for the Union, including during the Battle of Gettysburg. He attempted to parlay his wartime success into being elected Commander-in-Chief by opposing James A. Garfield in the 1880 presidential election, but lost the popular election by fewer than 2,000 votes.
Battery Arrowsmith: Named for George Arrowsmith (1839-1863), a Middletown native who served as a Lieutenant Colonel for the Union in the Civil War. He was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg and is buried in Middletown.
Gunnison Beach: The only legal clothing-optional beach in the state is named after John Williams Gunnison (1812 – 1853), an Army Captain and explorer best known for surveying the Great Lakes area. Gunnison reportedly died in an attack from a Native American tribe while scouting a pass through the Rocky Mountains in Utah, and has several locations out west named after him.
And Along Came Sandy . . .
The Sandy Hook grounds have witnessed and survived wartime confrontations that date back to the Revolutionary War, but one of the greatest challenges in the area’s 250-plus year history was the devastation inflicted by superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The peninsula was flooded and sand was pushed past the beaches and onto the roads. Power and running water were lost. The Multi-Use Path, a popular trail that spans the entire stretch of land, was closed due to the damage.
Sandy Hook reopened to the public a short seven months later on May 1, 2013. The beaches opened on Memorial Day weekend that same year. All roads have been repaved and reopened, and food trucks serve patrons where concessions are still closed. The Multi-Use Path has been restored, but the History House and the Fort Hancock Museum remain closed this summer.